Smithfield: the world’s ‘second-coolest neighbourhood’ is where traditional Dublin meets hipster innovation

Dublin’s Smithfield neighbourhood has been declared one of the world’s coolest by Time Out, second only to Laureles in Medellín, Colombia. So, what makes Smithfield such a standout in Ireland’s capital?

Lying on the north bank of the River Liffey, it’s a tightly packed grid of mainly cobblestone streets that radiate around the central Smithfield Square, where gritty urbanism, hipster hangouts, independent shops and everything in between coexist.

Laid out in the 17th century as a marketplace and known in Gaelic as “Margadh na Feirme” or Farm Market, Smithfield’s previous incarnation was of a more agricultural bent, edged by stables for livestock.

Fast-forward a few centuries and the broad, main square was redeveloped in the early 2000s as part of an inner-city regeneration plan. It now hosts a dozen 26.5m gas lighting masts and has been rechristened as a more cosmopolitan sounding Plaza.

But despite the council’s best efforts, Smithfield is still something of a diamond in the rough, helped by an influx of around 10,000 students who populate the new Technical University Dublin in the redeveloped Grangegorman complex nearby.

For all the attempts at gentrification, some Old Dublin traditions die hard, and the square is still home to a biannual Horse Fair, held on the first Sunday of March and September and frequented by many of the local urban cowboys, also known as pony kids, who can sometimes be seen riding around Dublin’s inner-city streets.

Smithfield is still where Dublin’s old and new faces mingle, the essence of the living city, which is being lost in other parts.

Where to stay

Overlooking Smithfield Square, Generator Dublin is understandably popular given its location, vibey industrial look and youthful clientele. It also has an in-house bar, restaurant and cinema room. There are dorms, private rooms and even a Jacuzzi suite, with rates starting at €58 per night.

Generator Dublin's bar (Photo: Supplied)
Generator Dublin’s bar (Photo: Supplied)

The walls and public areas of The Hendrick celebrate the city’s prolific graffiti and street-art scene with a collection including works by some of its biggest proponents like Maser and Conor Harrington. Its simple but well-appointed rooms have everything you need and little you don’t, like comfortable beds, power showers and Wi-Fi, and there’s a bar on the ground floor for snacks with neighbourhood explorations are positively encouraged. Doubles from €140.

What to see

The Jameson Whiskey Distillery anchors the neighbourhood, with its distinctive tower, which can be seen from afar. It was established in 1780 and produces one of the country’s most recognisable tipples – tours of the factory also offer the opportunity to learn the art of blending, and cocktail-making classes.

Once forming part of the distillery, the Smithfield chimney, now called the Skyview Tower, offers one of the best panoramas of the city. Buy a ticket for €5 in next-door Generator Dublin and ascend the 289 steps for far-reaching views out over the city, bay and Dublin Mountains.

Jameson Whiskey Distillery (Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Jameson Whiskey Distillery (Photo: Education Images/Universal Images via Getty)

You will find plenty of locals among the out-of-town visitors who have come to listen to the traditional Irish music sessions put on at The Cobblestone. Five generations of the Mulligan family have played here and it continues to be the beating heart of Dublin’s trad scene, one not just staged for tourists, that showcases both established and soon-to-be stars.

One of the main square’s contemporary additions has been the Lighthouse Cinema. A seemingly modest entrance reveals something of an internal iceberg beneath of soaring spaces, with a café, bar and four screens showing mainly independent films as well as one-off screenings, a cinema book club and cinematic event nights.

The Lighthouse arthouse cinema often hosts events (Photo: Cillian Doyle)
The Lighthouse arthouse cinema often hosts events (Photo: Cillian Doyle)

Just beyond the Smithfield boundary is the National Museum of Ireland’s second site, Decorative Arts & History, which displays a diverse collection of artefacts and objects with permanent exhibitions including one dedicated Irish design legend Eileen Gray as well as the country’s military history set against the backdrop of the magnificent 18th century Collins Barracks.

Where to eat and drink

For one of, if not the best, elevated fish-and-chip experiences in Dublin, reserve a spot at Fish Shop’s counter for freshly landed, beer-battered varieties such as hake and haddock with chips, as well as small plates including dressed crab on toast, oysters and Killary Fjord mussels accompanied by an interesting list from of sherries, wines and natural wines from small producers. A return visit may be needed to sample the whole baked lemon sole.

Proper Order Coffee Co brews up some of the best coffee in the quarter with its own micro roastery – the Cardi-B cardamom bun from its sister No Messin’ Bakery nearby is a mandatory accompaniment.

Urbanity coffee shop and all-day restaurant is close to Smithfield Square (Photo: Tourism Ireland)
Urbanity coffee shop and all-day restaurant is close to Smithfield Square (Photo: Tourism Ireland)

Brunch is the main event on weekends at Urbanity, it’s no reservations so you’ll have to join the queue – many are there for the dish of the moment, its riff on the viral omelette cooked by character Sydney in “The Bear”; organic scrambled eggs, herbed cream cheese and crumbled sour cream and chive house crisps on sourdough.

One of Smithfield’s newest arrivals is the diminutive Matsukawa, Dublin’s singular, authentic, high-end Japanese omakase serving a memorable 18-course menu using only the finest Irish ingredients for €90 per person – a fraction of the price than in London.

Easily one of the neighbourhood’s liveliest spots, music is the focus at Fidelity Bar, a collaboration between local bar owners The Big Romance and Whiplash Beer, with locally brewed ales on tap and daily live DJ sets.

You can get stuck into some retro-gaming and pinball leagues at the over-18s Token, with banks of 40 arcade favourites as well as one-off events, killer cocktails and bites.

Despite a more youthful clientele these days, with its snugs and dimly lit interior, Frank Ryan’s Bar remains one of those closely guarded locals, reputedly serving one of the city’s best pints of Guinness.